Hello, Tom Brady? It’s me, retirement. Let me start by saying: “You again?”
Most people retire once. Oh, not everyone. Sinatra didn’t. Streisand. Garth Brooks. Lots of athletes; Michael Jordan, George Foreman, Brett Favre. Sometimes, it works out. Most of the time, it doesn’t.
Yours didn’t. You came back for one more year in the NFL, 40 days after calling it quits. You should know how that embarrasses me. And I usually get the last laugh. Or did you forget “Sugar” Ray Leonard, at 40, getting knocked out by Héctor “Macho” Camacho?
But I’ll admit I wasn’t laughing when I watched your final game last month — or what is now your final game.
Uh … it WAS your final game, right?
We’re not doing this again in March, are we?
If so, it was no laughing matter. You looked out of sync, as if playing in mud. You threw the ball 66 times against Dallas, but many of them were into the turf and one was into the arms of the wrong team — in the end zone — a ball you were just trying to throw away.
Did you hear me banging that gong at that moment? I think you did. Tom Brady, after 23 seasons, doesn’t throw interceptions in the end zone on passes he’s not even TRYING to complete.
It wasn’t you. It was a shadow of you. And that’s what they often say about guys who embrace me then pull away.
It’s not nice to fool Mother Retirement.
The fire had been extinguished
Your team, the Bucs, lost that last game, badly, 31-14. Afterward, you deferred questions about hanging it up, saying you just wanted to get a good night’s sleep. I knew right then, even if others were still wondering, that you were coming my way. “A good night’s sleep?” That’s what your grandmother wants after cooking all day.
The old Tom Brady would never have let that be his last performance. The old Tom Brady would have been too competitive, too concerned about his legacy, too embarrassed by his team not scoring a point until the final play of the third quarter.
The old Tom Brady would have said, “Hell yes, I’m coming back. And I’m going a lot further next year than the first round of the playoffs.”
But there’s the old Tom Brady and just Old Tom Brady. And you are going on 46. That’s prime of life stuff everywhere else. But not in football. In football, you are Methuselah. Now, everything hurts that didn’t used to hurt. And no matter how magnificently you take care of yourself, and you do, mentally, you know how big a mountain you have to climb just to get back to your last jumping-off point.
The workouts. The training camps. The exhibition season. The regular season. The laundry list of injuries that decimate your roster, until you feel like you are running a MASH unit with spoons and forks.
You saw that this season. You had so many receivers injured, the tackling dummies were getting suited up. That’s out of your control. So are offensive linemen that retire, go down or aren’t very good.
Many people thought you had another year in you. They were already placing you in San Francisco, or Las Vegas, or Miami. But this is more than just plucking a guy from one place and dropping him in another. What you did in 2020 was remarkable, joining a team and taking it all the way to the Super Bowl. That’s freakish.
In hindsight, that’s when you should have knocked on my door. Retiring as a Super Bowl winner at age 43? That’s how you leave the stage.
Fool me once, shame on …
But lots of people stay on that stage too long. You wanted to try a repeat. Thought the table was set. But the 2021 season didn’t work out, and when it was over, you spent a few weeks window shopping at my palace. You liked what you saw. On Feb. 1, 2022, you made a big announcement. You were saying goodbye.
Now, on Feb. 1, 2023, you’re saying it again.
Listen, Tom. We’re gonna give you a mulligan. A career as great as yours can endure two endings, even though the last one felt as if you were sailing off into the sunset on a yacht, and this one feels like someone dropped you alongside the highway.
You said it yourself in the video you released Wednesday morning. You said, “I won’t be long-winded. I think you only get one super-emotional retirement essay, and I used mine up last year.”
Yes. Last year is when we pointed out what a remarkable journey you’d had, from a sixth-round pick, riding the bench, to the greatest and winningest quarterback to ever play the game.
Last year, we marveled at how you did it with two different teams, with a supporting cast that you always made better, with a lot of guys who are never going to see the Hall of Fame but sure seemed like they might when they were catching your passes.
Last year, we celebrated how you changed the narrative on age in the NFL, how you proved with proper care and mental focus, a man could go beyond the norm and still deliver excellence.
Last year, we shouted all that.
This year, it’s all still true. And, in time, when fall rolls around, when you start your broadcasting career, when you get into the Hall of Fame, there will be reflections and summations and video packages of your seven Super Bowl wins and your countless clutch passes. And you’ll get the full pageantry you deserve.
But that’s how it works with me second-time-around. Never as loud. Never as emotional. Never as fancy. Heck, it looked like you didn’t even shave for your video. And you recorded it in a windstorm?
No matter. I welcome you in. Sometimes, as retirement, I am foisted upon people, sometimes I sneak up on people, sometimes I am the welcome relief and sometimes I am the last thing people want to see.
But rarely do I knock twice. I am not the postman. So welcome to the club “for real,” as you put it. Your race is run. You were incredible. We all wish you well.
But 40 days from now, I’m getting up early, just in case.
Don’t push me.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.